Why Morality Presupposes God's Existence

An Indirect Reply to Jerry Billings' "Ethics Without God"

By Mario Derksen (M.A., Philosophy)


[Note: Please read this essay in its entirety in order not to misunderstand what I am saying.]

Many atheists are good people, in the sense that they don't live only for themselves but help others, give money to charitable organizations, serve their country, truly care for their family and friends, and don't wish to hurt anybody. It is quite right that they should point out, when debating atheism with a theist, that nobody is justified in jumping to the unwarranted conclusion that merely because they do not believe in God (or "a god"), they are morally corrupt and bad people. Holding to atheism doesn't necessarily make them morally depraved, so they argue, and while there are morally depraved atheists (mentioning names would be superfluous, I believe, but Howard Stern comes to mind), not all atheists are like that. There are many "good" atheists, so to speak.

While atheists are quite right about this (there are plenty of people who are virtuous but don't believe in God), the philosophical challenge I wish to present (or rather, re-present, for I am by no means the first one to do so) is that there is simply no reason for an atheist to be and do good. Let me make this clear:

If God doesn't exist, nothing matters.

If God doesn't exist, it doesn't matter if you're good or bad, if you help in emergency efforts or are one of those people who fly planes into buildings. It doesn't matter, if there is no God, whether you donate selflessly to a Pro-Life organization or if you are an abortionist. It just doesn't matter. If this is all there is to life, if no one ever has to give an account of what he's done, if there is no one who rewards and punishes, what's it all matter? Why not just look out for yourself, maximize the pleasures and minimize the pains of life? Why not have fun and let everyone else suffer? Who cares if someone is being treated unjustly, as long as you're feeling great? I mean, if there is no God and I simply cease to exist after death, whether I've been a Mother Theresa or a Howard Stern, a St. Nicholas or a Mao Tse-Dong, why not be totally selfish and leave everything and everyone else behind?

This might seem shocking to many. But if you really think about it, it's true. It doesn't matter how many children die each year if there is no God. There is no reason why I should help anyone or care for anyone at all. Common sense and compassion, which we (hopefully) all possess, compels us to reject such an idea that nothing matters and that we should only watch out for ourselves. But there is no reasonable answer to why we shouldn't, if God does not exist.

Pretty much any atheist, I certainly hope, would be totally repulsed by the idea that there is no reason not to look out only for ourselves if there is no God. But why? It cannot be demonstrated rationally , so the only basis the atheist has for maintaining at least a minimal account of morality is emotion. It just doesn't seem right to hurt other people, to steal from others, to cause pain to the innocent. It just doesn't feel right. But there is absolutely no rational reason an atheist could bring forward to defend his living an at least minimally moral life.


What I am NOT Saying
I am prone to be misunderstood here, so I want to spell out precisely what I do and do not mean here.
I do NOT mean to convey that

What I AM Saying
On the other hand, here is what I do affirm:

Somehow, though, it is deep in everyone's heart (for lack of a better term) that it is wrong to torture babies and getting a "kick" out of it, and that it is right to help and protect them instead.

What accounts for this? The atheist has no answer, except that he might say that it is simply a psychological defect in our brain that needs to be overcome, i.e. it is true that there are no reasons to be moral and therefore no one has an obligation to be moral and can just do whatever he likes. With this explanation, the atheist can save his atheism, but utters a most disgusting thing, namely that it does not matter whether one hurts innocent children, for instance, or not. Hardly anyone would affirm such a thing, though.

The only other answer I can think of that an atheist might give is that there is a sort of innate tendency that tells us that we ought to do good and avoid evil for merely pragmatic, i.e. practical, purposes. They might think it is a sort of trait of evolution (in which most of them believe), one that accounts for the fact that mankind has survived until this very day. After all, if everyone only cared for his own self, his own pleasure, and not about anyone else, it seems likely that mankind would not have survived very long. But this possible answer has its problems: so what if mankind doesn't survive very long? Who cares? Remember, the atheist doesn't believe in God, and hence he can see no real meaning in life (ask Jean-Paul Sartre!). Why should anything or anyone care if mankind will exist for a long time? This type of atheist response presupposes either the existence of God, who wishes mankind to live long, or that it is somehow meaningful or objectively good that mankind should survive a long time. But such a presupposition would posit that there is a real good (and evil), which, however, had earlier been explained away as a merely pragmatic trait of evolution.

Thus, neither possible atheist answer can account for the fact that everyone knows, deep down, that certain things ought to be done and others ought to be condemned and avoided. (Not everyone may agree precisely what that is, but there is a sort of minimal basis everyone can agree on, e.g. it is wrong to torture helpless widows, etc.--I call this "ethical minimalism.")

Natural Law

The point in all of this is that the only thing that can account for the existence of our conviction that certain things ought to be done and others ought to be avoided is the existence of the natural law. But a natural law implies--or at least strongly suggests--a natural-lawgiver. The natural law would have no reason for existing if there was not a Being which will judge us by this law and to Whom we must one day give an account. The natural law tells us, objectively, what is right and what is wrong. But objective right and wrong can only exist if there is some purpose to life, if those who do good are going to be rewarded, and those who do evil will be punished. Otherwise, we'd be back to square one and left with the absurd dilemma that either nothing is right or wrong or we ought indeed to be virtuous but for no reason.

Since it is not the objective of my essay to prove how the natural law works and how it can be discerned, or to prove that the assertion "Nothing is right or wrong" is impossible, let me refer the reader to two excellent books making these cases:

50 Questions on the Natural Law, by Charles E. Rice, Ph.D. Third edition, Ignatius Press, 1999.

A Refutation of Moral Relativism, by Peter Kreeft, Ph.D. Ignatius Press, 1999.

[For a more practical proof that there is real right and wrong, please watch America's Most Wanted.]
Now, of course I am anticipating some objections. For instance:

Objection 1: "Christians/Theists are only good and moral because they want to be rewarded, or for fear they would otherwise be punished. Atheists are good and moral for its own sake, regardless of whether some other being might reward or punish them."

This is probably a commonly-heard objection. The atheists do what is right because it is right, whereas Christians or other theists only obey God's commandments because (1) they are expecting a reward, and are therefore selfish; or (2) they are afraid of being punished if they don't, and, again, they are only being selfish.

How can we refute such an objection? Since there are two assertions made, we must refute each one individually.

First, how can we refute that atheists do good for its own sake? Quite simply by pointing out that if atheism is true, there is no such thing as good in itself. One couldn't possibly do good for its own sake because the notions of good and evil, right and wrong, would lose their meaning. If God doesn't exist, then neither does the natural law (it would be redundant), so who's to say what's right and wrong? Who even cares?

Second, how can we refute the idea that Christians only wish to be rewarded and not-punished? Quite simply by pointing out that in order for an atheist to make such an assertion, he'd have to know the motive of each individual Christian, and that is impossible, of course. Merely pointing out that there is a God who will reward the just and punish the wicked in no way amounts to saying that we ought to obey God only for that very reason. No, the Christian realizes that good should be done because it is good, and the reward is only a consequence. In fact, the Catholic Church teaches that if someone does good in order to be rewarded, his merit amounts to nothing, and his efforts are in vain and not recognized before God.

Objection 2: "Let's say an atheist, call her Madalyn, is introduced to Christianity. How will she know, if she has no morals, whether the God she is supposed to worship is a moral God? Surely, only a moral God deserves worship."

This objection is a paraphrase taken from Jerry Billings' short essay Ethics Without God. This objection rests on the false premise that one can only have morals if one believes in God. This is false. The natural law can teach morals to anybody who's willing to use his brain. The existence of the natural law itself, however, ought to compel people to infer that there is a God. Unfortunately, many don't think this far or try to argue their way out of it into irrationality. Secondly, if Madalyn is convinced, rationally, that there is a God, the question whether this God (as if there could be several, gee!) is moral is absurd, because it follows that if this God, this Supreme Being, exists, we ought to do what He commands, and our morality has its basis and standard in Him. He is the one who gave us the natural law, and therefore there could never be a conflict between what we have rationally attained to be moral and what God says.

So What's the Point? --Conclusion

My main thesis, then, is that when an atheist recognizes, as most do, that there is a real right and wrong out there, that some things really ought to be done and others avoided, this should lead him to conclude that there is a God, that God exists. There is no rational way out of this conclusion. I again challenge anyone who disagrees to prove the opposite to me. Our very own conscience, the law that God has written on our hearts, so to speak, points towards the existence of God.

So I wish to say to the atheist: Believe! Take heart and believe! Your very own conviction of right and wrong compels you to.